A Conversation With .... Doug McClement
The award-winning veteran engineer looks back on favourite recording sessions, a novel concept for a Blue Rodeo hit album, the only time he missed a gig, his worst clients, and the joys of educating.
By Bill King
Both Doug and I are on the faculty of the Harris Institute, Doug since 1994. Yet it was only recently we have had occasion to enjoy one another’s company; that being a run-through of the Band’s The Weight, which we are preparing for the big night – the 30th anniversary of the esteemed institute taking place November 28th at the Berkeley Church, Toronto, 5-9 PM, with the Harris faculty band, The Invigilators.
Doug’s back-story is rich in context and history. The awards stack floor to ceiling and yet, in this interview, it’s the process, the music, the opportunities and challenges that most engage the curious man. Here’s a brief look at his background and beyond – a terrific conversation that reveals much about the gentleman.
Doug set up LiveWire Remote Recorders in the summer of 1994 and has been doing location recording ever since, both with the truck and with the portable air pack system. The system has expanded to 96 tracks.
Doug has been nominated thirteen times for a Gemini Award for Best Sound in a TV Variety Program and won Geminis in 2003 and 2010 for his mix of the Juno Awards. He also won the Canadian Screen Award in the same category in 2014, 2018 and 2019, and was nominated again in 2015 and twice in 2017. He has received platinum albums for engineering Blue Rodeo’s Diamond Mine and Five Days in July and Bargainville for Moxy Fruvous. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King In Session, engineered by Doug, won the W.C. Handy Award from the Blues Foundation for Best Blues Album of 2000. He also won an ADISQ award (Quebec Juno) for his mix of a Richard Seguin concert television special for MusicPlus.
Bill King: Your early years sound much like those of Blue Note recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder – the studio in the parent’s house. How did they react to that?
Doug McClement: They were very supportive. They even let my Uncle Jack (head carpenter at Queen’s for 35 years) cut a hole in a wall in the rec room for the control room window) My 93-year-old parents still live in that house. There are still divots in the acoustic tiles in the ceiling of the rec room/studio from guys taking off their electric guitars and accidentally hitting the headstocks. Mom says she’s never had them repaired because it reminds her of all the music and good times had by my friends. Dad says it was better than having to get up at 5 am to take me to hockey practice. They put up with bands in our basement from the time I was eleven till I left home for Toronto at twenty-two. I would come upstairs on a break and mom would be straightening out the wall paintings, and dad would have the hockey game on in the den with the volume at eleven. Not sure if I would have been that patient with my kids!
B.K:Was dad into electronics?
D.M: Not at all. Never saw him even play a record on a turntable. He was a bus driver for the city when I was growing up. He was not musical but was a big fan of traditional country music. It took me to see Buck Owens and the Buckaroos when I was ten. We later drove down to St. Louis to attend a pedal steel convention, so I got to see Buddy Emmons, Pete Drake and all the greats. He later bought me a Fender pedal steel guitar, but I never really learned to play it.
B.K: 1973 – what gear would you have had to begin recording demos?
D.M: Teac 3340 four-track tape deck, Revox 2 track for mixdowns, three Lamb Laboratories four-channel mixers (made in the UK). I configured two of them to give me 8 inputs and 4 outputs and used the third one to monitor and mix the output of the four-track deck to stereo.
B.K: This is Kingston, Ontario and the beginnings of Comfort Sound. You graduated with honours from Queen’s University in 1975, moving to Toronto to work as a computer programmer at TD bank. What was your degree in, and how did you maintain balancing class obligations and moonlighting as an engineer?
D.M: I have an Honours Bachelor of Commerce degree. Majored in marketing, minored in Computer Science. I rented a house in East York and started building a studio in the basement right away while at TD. At first, I only recorded musicians I knew from Kingston who, like me, had moved up to Toronto. Then it gradually branched out to their musical friends. At first, it was five hours a week, then ten, and by 1978, I was working 35 hours a week at the bank and 30 hours recording. Something had to give, so I handed in my resignation at the bank (and instantly watched my income drop by 50% !).
B.K: How did a career in sound engineering win out?
D.M: Each upgrade from four-track to sixteen to twenty-four and beyond was costly.
BK: Were you able to consistently attract enough work to make a decent living?
DM: Fortunately, working at the bank gave me an inside track for finding a sympathetic loans officer in a downtown branch, and I was able to get bank loans over the next decade that allowed me to expand the business gradually.
B.K: Every engineer has a dream component or microphone just out of reach – what was the gamechanger for you?
D.M: Getting our first mobile, a Dodge cube van, was a big deal. As I was moving out of the basement of the house in East York into a storefront studio on Dufferin St. just north of Rogers Rd. Clients like the major record labels and CBC started booking our facility. They weren’t comfortable booking a home basement studio, so that was when Comfort Sound began to get taken seriously. I guess the first gamechanger piece of gear was buying an Ampex MM1200 2” 16 track tape deck in 1981.
B.K: What was the first recording session you oversaw that resulted in vinyl?
D.M: Irish tenor Sean Broderick recorded a 45-rpm single called The Green Glens of Antrim. I was just as excited about that single in 1977 as I was recording AC/DC 26 years later at SarsStock. The first LP I recorded was for a local electric bluegrass band called Saddletramps.
B.K: What was the earliest success – the one that rocked radio?
D.M:Diamond Mine by Blue Rodeo. We recorded the entire album at a former movie theatre at Donlands and O’Connor with our mobile parked out back. This was a novel concept in 1989. Record companies were not into recording outside of a traditional studio. We later recorded their Five Days in July album with the truck at Greg Keelor’s farmhouse near Peterborough.
B.K: The cube van you bought and outfitted saw many miles and hundreds of rolls of two-inch tape. What was the most gratifying rolling session, and what was the most difficult?
D.M: The most gratifying was building a 16-track studio on a VIA Rail train for MuchMusic in 1990 and travelling from Vancouver to Halifax and recording bands on the moving train as well as at various train stations along the way. It was pretty tricky as well. Other difficult remotes were recording bands at the top of mountain ski resorts for MuchMusic’s Snowjob series for ten years, taking gear up the mountain on chair lifts and skidoos. Recording Barenaked Ladies on the observation deck at the top of the CN Tower was pretty tricky and memorable.
B.K: Television sent you around the world with your portable set-up. What would you have been traveling with in those days?
D.M: Often small portable mixers from Roland or Mackie, and 16 track Fostex reel to reel tape decks,
Later, Tascam DA88 eight-track digital recorders with ATI 8 channel mic pre’s.
B.K: You’ve engineered many award-winning series for 'best sound'. Any stand above the rest when you hear today that brings a broad smile to your face?
D.M: The In Session series for CHCH-TV (13 episodes in 1983 and another 13 in 1988) working with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Chet Atkins, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Dr. John, Johnny Winter, Emmylou Harris, Spencer Davis, Dave Mason, Larry Gatlin, Mickey Newbury, Buffy St Marie, Brenda Lee, Owen Bradley, Roseanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Don Everly, Burton Cummings, Ronnie Hawkins, Jeff Healey and many others.
B.K: You also handled sound for The Festival Express – a complicated and litigious undertaking. Did you travel on the train across Canada?
D.M: I didn’t work on Festival Express, though I did attend the Toronto concert at the CNE Stadium as a 17-year-old fan. And I did record the entire festival on a portable cassette deck with a mic on a stand at the twenty-yard line. LOL!
B.K: Have you had a live situation where you’ve thrown in the towel – the odds against getting it right near impossible?
D.M: I’ve never thrown in the towel, though there was one remote where we didn’t make it due to underestimating how long it would take to get from Toronto to Jonquiere, Quebec for the Canadian Drum and Bugle Corps Championship in 1980. We drove all night after recording the Heatwave festival in Oshawa and realized by the time we got to Montreal that we were not going to get there in time. That was a tough phone call to the client. I felt terrible for weeks afterwards. The only time I’ve ever bailed on a gig. We once had the engine blow in the cube van on the way to a concert in Quebec City for Gilles Vigneault, but we rented a UHaul, transferred all the gear over to it and still made the gig. I also had my minivan with $76,000 worth of equipment stolen out of my driveway on the morning of a remote at Massey Hall for Amy Sky in 2000, and I was able to beg and borrow enough gear from sound companies and friends to still do the show.
B.K: Do you keep a mental note of those artists who graced the stage and showed great patience and respect? Who would you work for without giving a second thought?
D.M: I’ve recorded over 4,000 remotes since 1978, and most people are great to work with, so that would be a very long list. But only a handful have come out to the trucks and introduced themselves to the audio/video crew before the show. Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, and Carl Perkins, for example. I have recorded Blue Rodeo about 30 times, so I have a long professional relationship with Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, going back to their first single in The Hi-Fis.
B.K: Who was the most difficult?
D.M: Alannah Myles, Super Dave Osborne, John Landis (director of the Blues Brothers 2000 Movie.
B.K: Today’s audio landscape is far different. Are you one to argue the merits of magnetic tape over digital capture?
D.M: I still love the sound of magnetic tape. There’s some kind of realism that is still missing in digital, though digital sounds WAYYY better than it did in the early ’90s. But I don’t miss the cost, the weight, and the heart-attack reel changes during shows.
B.K: What do you pack with you these days, and what projects are you currently involved in?
D.M: We have two systems. The 32-foot LiveWire trailer houses a 96 input SSL C200 digital console and a 96 track Protools system with 96 tracks of backup on two Tascam X48 recorders. The mobile has full 5.1 surround sound monitoring and all the outboard gear typically found in a high-end studio, like Pultec tube equalizers, LA2A and Urei 1176 compressors, etc. With the mobile, we’ve done the broadcast mix for the MuchMusic Video Awards for the past 29 years, the Juno Awards for the past 20 years, the Grey Cup Halftime Show for the past 15 years, the Stratford Festival for the past decade, Canada Day on Parliament Hill, New Year’s Eve in Niagara Falls, The Canadian Country Music Awards, and many other major Canadian events. The portable system is housed in a dozen flight cases and is designed to go where the truck is not a practicality. That rig has done shows in all ten provinces, Spain, Kuwait, Cyprus, Germany, Texas, Nigeria, Israel, Egypt, and many other places around the world. It is currently based around two 48 track digital Tascam X48 recorders and 48 ATI mic pre’s.
B.K: You’ve have taught many sessions at the Harris Institute. What brings you the greatest joy in the classroom?
D.M: Seeing the names of our graduates roll by on credits on tv shows or seeing their names on the list of award winners at the Junos or the Canadian Screen Awards. And I’m especially happy to see our grads out in the field on gigs. I seldom do a remote in Toronto without running into at least one Harris grad working for the venue, the band, the record label or the sound company. It makes me feel like a proud parent. I’ve been teaching there for 27 years.
B.K: Does music play in the background as frequently as in your youth?
D.M: I mostly listen to music in the car, on CDs. Some vinyl at home. I don’t have any music on my phone and don’t subscribe to Spotify or Itunes. I listen to a lot of roots-based music. Old blues and country and string-band stuff, along with Ry Cooder, Tom Waits, Tower of Power, Steely Dan, Asleep at the Wheel, Elvis Costello, would be my ‘go-to’ listening choices.
B.K: What brings you pleasure away from sound and music?
D.M: Watching baseball is pretty close to music in my world in terms of enjoyment. I share Blue Jays seasons tickets with some friends and catch EVERY other game on tv. And I love travelling.
B.K: What’s the home sound system consist of?
D.M: Pioneer 5.1 surround system with DCM speakers. Thorens turntable.